Friday, September 22, 2017

Time Unmanageable

I had to teach a workshop on time management for college freshmen and academic probation students, and this got me thinking about the whole nature of time.

Delmore Schwartz, in his poem “Calmly We Walk Through This April Day,” writes “Time is the school in which we learn.  Time is the fire in which we burn.”  It is one of my favorite poems from a poet who has amassed a lot of great lines during his career.  Of course, this one floated to the surface as I considered the way we approach time in our lives.

We do not manage time; we manage ourselves.  And in a paradoxical statement, time is both inconstant and a fixed entity.  Time is not constant because we have leap years and extra seconds tacked on to the New Year’s Eve countdown.  We know, through science, that the earth and sun, and their orbits and revolutions, are not absolute.

Outside forces can bend time.  Gravity, black holes and collisions in the darkness of space can change, alter, or even destroy a world and time.  There are strings and universes and multiverses—does earth exist in these other dimensions?  Are the units of time parallel in every iteration?

Then there are our perceptions of time.  When working through a boring task, time slows to a crawl; when we are doing something we love, or are with those we love, time is too fleeting, too quickly dissipated into the ether.

We do not manage time; we manage ourselves.  We have 365 days in a year; 8,760 hours in a year; 525,600 minutes in a year; 31,557,600 seconds in a year, accompanied by approximately 42,048,000 rhythmic beats of our own hearts.  Everything is pulsing toward oblivion.  And yet we must seize every moment and waste not a precious second while we are alive.

We do not manage time; we manage ourselves.  We have 16 weeks in a semester; four to five years of those semesters to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree; two more years of semesters for a Master’s degree; and another two to six years or more of semesters for doctoral work.

To human beings living day-to-day, time is fixed and valuable.  Lawyers charge by the billable hour; wages are often paid by the hour; we sign month-long, year-long, multi-year contracts; we make appointments and rush to be on time.

The one thing we want when we reach our final hour is more time.  We want more time to love, to laugh, to sing, to dance, to live, to learn—and all of these things are important and necessary for a rich life, and we always, always, want more when the sands run out.

In the end, time is, and we must work within its parameters.  We cannot manage time; we can only work with it and within in it, to get the most from our brief episode, our own finite chapter.

Alan Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams, imagines the nocturnal meditations Einstein had when he was developing his Special Theory of Relativity.  In one chapter, time is a concentric, circular universe.  At the center, time is stopped.  Raindrops hang in the air.  Parents struggle to bring their children to the center so they will always be children, never know evil, never move far away from their parents.  Lovers like the center because every moment of love lasts an eternity.  They will never break up, never become disillusioned with one another, never realize that love has flown away.  Moving out from the center, time advances with greater and greater velocity.  Children want to go there to grow up faster and experience life more quickly.  In this world, as in all worlds, time is the arbiter, time is the dance-caller, time is the ghost that haunts us, chases us, really, in all our days.

I have become a dedicated keeper of lists.  The subject of these lists is to manage the time I have.  I have a list, limited to three entries, for what I hope to accomplish that day.  I have lists in a file on my computer for yearly goals and lifetime goals.  I take great, maybe even too much pleasure in crossing items off my lists.  Without them, the day, month and year seem directionless.  I also fight to maintain focus.  In this day and time, we are so distracted.  So much is coming at us.  I sit down to read and find myself staring off into space, considering what I must remember to do tomorrow, contemplating the actions I took yesterday and how the consequences of those actions will affect my tomorrow.  My mind is a jumble of shards that defy me when I try to glue everything back together and reorder my life and manage my time.  Sometimes, I must take a deep breath and focus on what is important in that moment and forget everything else.

There are many things we cannot change in our lives and we are destined for tragedy if we attempt to control the hands of time or fate.  As Alan Lightman writes, life can often be a vessel of sadness.  But there are moments of joy and love.  Like water through our fingers, we must appreciate each drop as it slides by, never trying to close our fist and cling too tightly, never trying to change the course of the tides.  In the shadow of time, we look for the light.  And we live.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Raccoon

The dead, rabid raccoon

Recently, my wife arrived at her school on a hot morning to find the students crowded around a raccoon on the school playground.  She has had her students read Rascal by Sterling North (Puffin Modern Classics, 2004), a memoir of the author’s childhood and his companionship with raccoon he kept as a pet.  It is a beautiful and moving story but this raccoon on the playground was not loveable or cute or anything like Rascal.  When she made her way through the tight circle of kids, my wife saw this raccoon staggering around like a drunken sailor.  He was hissing and spitting, and from his mouth dripped frothy strands of drool.  She recognized the danger immediately and began ushering the kids into their classrooms and away from the area.  The raccoon fell over a final time and stayed down, eyes glassy, breathing shallow and rapid.  Rabies in animals is fatal, and this raccoon was on his way to dying on the skillet-hot asphalt of the school playground.

More and more, wild animals roam urban streets:  rats, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, coyotes, and even mountain lions.  As cities and suburbs expand into nature with tract homes and shopping centers, these encounters are inevitable.

At the college where I teach in the tony suburbs of Los Angeles, there have been two confirmed mountain lion sightings on campus as well as numerous coyotes, deer and hawks.  In every neighborhood there is an abundant supply of food in the trash cans lining the streets ready for pickup each week.  When we have high heat like we’ve had this week, animals need food they can get at without much exertion as well as a reliable source of water, both for drinking and cooling down.  In homes built up against the local mountains, it is not uncommon for bears to come down for a swim in someone’s pool.

We are not comfortable with these encounters.  They bring us up against the raw power of nature.  Coyotes attack cats and dogs.  Raccoons can spread trash up and down the street and become aggressive if a human approaches.

On an evening walk, I was chased for a block by an angry raccoon, something I laugh about now but was actually a little scary.  Later, driving by the spot where the chase began, I saw the mother raccoon and her kits.  She had been protecting her den when she chased me away.

A friend was awakened one night by the sound of glasses shattering and pots and pans being thrown around the kitchen.  When she snapped the light on, six or seven raccoons froze in the act of vandalism.  They had been raiding her cupboards and pantry having gained entrance through the doggy door.  Luckily, they had finished their pillaging and one by one, quietly slid out the way they came in like chastened delinquents.

In addition to the danger these wild encounters present, the animals often carry parasites and disease.  The experts who were summoned to remove the now dead raccoon on the playground believed the animal was rabid and posed a threat to students even after dying.  The two most common diseases for raccoons are rabies and canine distemper.  If the animal carried parasites, these organisms now needed a new host, so they would be abandoning the dead in search of living mammals, possibly even a human host.

When wild animals enter urban areas it is a dangerous reminder that we share our planet with other creatures and that our intellect may not save us from nature and instinct.  Too often, we assign human characteristics to these wandering creatures; we find them cute and playful.  But they are wild animals and not human, and children especially are vulnerable to this misconception.  YouTube videos aside, animals look to fulfill needs:  food, water, dominance.  In a moment, they can turn from playful to feeling threatened which precipitates an attack.  An animal protecting its young is unpredictable and aggressive.

So what do we do?

We remain vigilant.  We teach children about the awesome power of nature and that the beauty and majesty of an animal, or its playfulness, does not lessen the danger in the confrontation on our street or in our backyard.  We have a symbiotic relationship with everything on this earth.  Even a dead raccoon offers a lesson on how to co-exist with nature.  In danger there are teachable moments.  Wild animals living among us presents dangers but also an opportunity to learn and understand our world, and that, when precautions are taken, is a gift.